Friday, October 22, 2010

Fictional Female Characters I Like: Shirley and Caroline from "Shirley"

I recently read one of Charlotte  Brontë's "other" novels. As I wrote before, I loved Jane Eyre the first time around - as I grew up and became more critical, it lost some of its charm. 

Shirley, on the other hand, I savoured as I read it the first time as a grown-up older than either of the heroines. Though named Shirley, the novel actually follows Caroline Helstone. Yet as you read, it becomes apparent why the novel isn't named "Caroline" - Shirley is the star Caroline (in fact, it seems, everyone) admires and is drawn toward.

This novel was satisfyingly feminist for the most part. Shirley gets a man's name because her parents wanted a boy (and it's interesting to know that this novel popularized the name so that I was surprised when I read it was more commonly given to boys). She acts with the freedom few women had in those days, managing her estate ably and not letting others' prejudices affect her life. She even calls herself Captain Keeldar, and even while assuming what were then masculine roles she retains the respect of most of the people around her. She deals well with her subordinates, managing them firmly but kindly. She carries her wealth with a sense of responsibility and deals in business with men of more experience and years, and manages to ear the respect of all. 

*spoiler alert* 
What I didn't like so much was that she felt the need to marry a man who would "master" her. But those were the times, and these are but words - her lover seems quite respectful towards her and I have no such apprehensions about her future as I do about Jane Eyre's. *end spoiler*

Caroline is in many ways a much more conventional heroine. She is subdued and deferential, and wastes away when she endures heartbreak. Yet... and yet, I can't like her less than Shirley. Caroline thinks - about herself and her own feelings, about people around her and their motivations, and - most gratifyingly - about religion and politics. She aspires for independence, to learn a profession. Having no confidant, she thinks to herself about the unfairness women face, and wishes she had the same advantage as a man, and could build her own life instead of sitting and sewing in her uncle's drab home. 

Yes, she wastes away when her lover rejects her. But she keeps her feelings to herself and is too proud to talk about them even to her best friend. And she tries to be understanding and even supportive when it seems her best friend is in love with her lover. 

Best of all, I loved how these two characters become friends and discover that they can talk to each other. Shirley is delighted to learn that her criticisms of books - that people more learned than she did not agree with - are mirrored in Caroline's thoughts. 

This book seemed a severe indictment of the sexism of those times - in fact, there are long passages when Caroline rails about the unfairness. Yet it has hope, and is, at the core, a very conventional love story. 

(This is an entry for the Favourite Females contest by Woman's Web.)


Unknown said...

Nice post.

When you say...
'What I didn't like so much was that she felt the need to marry a man who would "master" her'
... are those your own words or Bronte's? And by "master", do you/Bronte mean "control" or "understand" (as in mastering a subject of study)? I wouldn't like the first meaning either, but the second meaning isn't too bad.

- John

Unmana said...

Why not read the book yourself and tell us what you think, instead of asking me to tell you both what Bronte said and what she meant?